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Coffee Made Me Do It: Coffee Project NY’s Chi Sum Ngai

Coffee Project NY Brooklyn

Chi Sum Ngai. Courtesy photo.

Most brands go it alone, offering a strict set of logos, colors and catch phrases designed to collectively draw your eye and say, “Please pick me!”

Then there’s Coffee Project NY. In name alone, the brand speaks to both a sense of place and to innovation, eschewing the know-it-all-so-just-trust-us attitude put forth by so many brands in favor of a “project.”

Launched by Chi Sum Ngai and partner Kaleena Teoh in 2015, Coffee Project NY embraces this project-focused ethos in more than mere branding. After finding considerable public acclaim for its first cafe in Manhattan’s East Village, the company opened its second cafe in Brooklyn last year. At the time, Ngai told Daily Coffee News that part of the vision for the shop was to bring coffee professionals together in a conflict-of-interest-free space for open communication and collaboration over coffee.

Ngai’s own experiments in coffee are about to be heightened by a recent scholarship from San Rafael, California-based Boot Coffee Campus. As we mentioned in the first two stories in this series — on Brazil’s Giovanna Serrano and Portland, Oregon’s Lisa Quinn, respectively — the Boot team received nearly 400 applications in the first formal year of the scholarship program, which is designed to help further the careers of coffee professionals whose backgrounds are underrepresented in the industry, or who may otherwise not have the means to pursue a formal coffee education.

Boot awarded the scholarships — each valued at up to $6,000 — in three separate categories: Social Enterprise, Producing Country, and Women/Non-Binary. Here is our conversation with Chi Sum Ngai, the recipient of the Women/Non-Binary scholarship (note: Portions of some answers have been shortened for clarity):

Daily Coffee News: Can you describe your personal journey in coffee to this point?

Chi Sum Ngai: In 2015, I started Coffee Project NY, a local coffee shop in NYC. For about a year, my partner and I worked every day brewing coffee for our neighbors and I [had] never felt so contented. Soon by word of mouth, we became the neighborhood’s most-loved coffee shop and the team grew bigger. As the team got bigger, I realized knowing how to brew coffee is not enough.

I am lucky to be leading a group of very passionate coffee professionals, and I think I have to create a pathway for them to grow with me. In 2017, I became a Q Grader. The Q has made me understand coffee on a different level, and I have been able to share my knowledge and experience with the coffee community in NYC. Beginning this year, my partner and I have decided to create a common space for coffee professionals and venture into coffee education. We are currently building an SCA certified premier training campus in a 4,000-square-foot facility in NYC.

With the training/education received through this scholarship, how do you hope to further your career in coffee? What specific skills are you hoping to develop and how do you plan to apply them?

I’d like to be more involved with roasting. I took the Q in 2017 and had the chance to learn more about green coffees and producing countries. With the training I receive in this scholarship, I’m hoping to apply my knowledge to create a complimenting roast profile that brings out the best of the green coffee. Then I can finally pass the coffee to my team, and be in full control of the brewing method. Moving forward, I’d like to be more involved with the producers in the producing countries — processing and education.

What are one or two of the most pressing issues you see in the coffee? Do you see it as an avenue for positive social or economic change? Or, in other words, what potential or end goals do you hope to realize through your work in coffee?

C-price for coffee is currently one of the issues I’m concerned [about] the most. As we all heard about, it is now pegged at under $1 and a lot of influential coffee professionals are beginning to get involved, trying to educate the coffee buyers on how this C-price is affecting the lives of our coffee farmers and producers. I’m playing my part to share this info with my community and buy our greens from reliable resources.

Secondly, something more personal to me: What is the pathway of a barista [who decides] to make this job their career? Can they make living wages, own a car, have family and eventually have savings to do the things they like to do? I have seen so many good baristas having to quit this industry because they need to pay bills. As a small business owner, I constantly tell our customers that they are not just baristas; they care about your drink and are truly passionate about coffee. Making coffee is not hard, but making good quality coffee consistently is hard, and finding people who are passionate about this is even harder. If there is no growth, no pathway, people will get tired, burned out and quit.

What’s your coffee drink of choice?

Black coffee.

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